While milling over what to write about during 2018, I found myself in a state of some distress when I was unable to come up with anything that ignited a passion in me. Even books and films I’d enjoyed inspired in me no particular desire to write about them. Had I, I wondered in that pre-dawn darkness where I most enjoy spending my time, exhausted my store of commentary? Was it time for me to resign my commission and step away from my position working the Gutter’s science fiction beat? In the midst of my preparations for hari kari, a song came on that I’d not heard in years, though it has always occupied an important place in my personal soundtrack. I began, as I played it over and over, to formulate something like a plan, a vague and nebulous idea that even at this point has yet to take a more definite form. It makes a jumbled sort of sense in my mind, though it remains to be seen whether I’ll be capable of translating that tangle into something at least partially cohesive, or if not cohesive than at least verbally expressible as a madman might express his inner thoughts and theories. Because it is a departure from what I’ve done here before and what, I think, is expected of me, I thought it worth adding a preamble to things by way of explaining myself a little.
So here’s the idea. As I’m currently hoping it will work out, it’s a serialized article that runs the entire year, equal parts autobiography, psychological road trip, actual road trip, sweat lodge vision quest, walkabout, and reflection on science fiction (the raison d’etre for this column, after all). So…not so much a regular review of something in the realm of science fiction as it is a rumination on the integration of science fiction, or certain philosophies and obsessions of science fiction, into real life. My road map for this experiment, like the road map for my average trip, is only the sketchiest of things. It takes us along the smaller lines on the map, to those spots where the future exists alongside the past, where the strange and otherworldly intersects with mundane Americana. I’m hoping destinations will present themselves as we travel. We will visit aliens and ancient gods, poke around the backwaters of the American space and atomic programs, commune with space chimps, charlatans, and gurus — some inspiring, many absurd, a few dangerous. Folk scifi. And yes, there will be an associated soundtrack.
I designate the gestalt “Sleep Walk.”
Chapter One: Late Nite Radio
Winter, 1992. Somewhere on the road between Florida and Massachusetts — It was just me, in what remained of a much-abused 1986 Honda Accord, and the big rigs roaring past me northbound toward Richmond, DC, New York. My sustaining diet of caffeine and little else started to fail me somewhere that might have been northern North Carolina or southern Virginia. Like most things in the car, the clock didn’t work, and I hadn’t worn a watch since some time early in high school when Swatch lapsed out of fashion. I didn’t know exactly how long I’d been driving or what time it was. Somewhere still well short of dawn and my destination. Satisfyingly late and dark and lonely. There is an emptiness to I-95 at this hour, a lack of any connection to the physical world as one drives bleary-eyed through nondescript interstate landscape. There is a beautiful journey to be taken through those states, but that’s not the journey I was on.
Other vehicles were meaningless light shows against a black canvas, the occupants of those cars and trucks nothing but wraiths in the blue-green luminescence of a dashboard. I was a ghost to them as well. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. All a smudge in the night broken by the occasional brightly lit caravanserai of a truck stop, a travel plaza, or the inevitable South of the Border straddling North and South Carolina, so expertly positioned in the universe that for the long-haul driver it is almost impossible not to find yourself in need of a restroom or a brief walk right about the time the garish neon that billboards have promised you for the last 90 miles finally presents itself. In that dubious fugue state into which one sinks after miles of anonymous asphalt, the tacky ephemera of South of the Border seems wholly more essential to one’s journey. It will be weeks before it occurs to you to wonder why you had been so adamant about purchasing that tiny sombrero, the cheap bullwhip, and a box labeled “Horny Toad” that contains a small rubber frog with an erection.
There’s lonely hearts in Arkansas, there’s truckers in Des Moines
All there to keep me company in the early morn.
A world unknown to daytime is forever going on
The airways of the nation between midnight and the dawn.
I treasured these moments of isolation. Yet at the same time I craved some manner of human presence. In these wee small hours, eyelids becoming dangerously heavy for someone moving at 70 miles per hour, I would find companionship on AM radio. FM was too unreliable. There was nothing I wanted to hear from them anyway. The car had a cassette player, and it even worked on occasion. But there was a tape permanently stuck in it, and nothing is deadlier to one’s testing the limits of wakefulness than sitting in the dark, listening to Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity. Besides, a cassette, however expertly curated, doesn’t provide the same satisfying, if false, sense of camaraderie.
Late-night AM radio, however, provided a simulacrum of interaction. It would come through, mile after mile, without fading, offering an endless chatter of oldies, passionate fans debating sports teams about which I did not care, and wild-eyed madmen. The political provocateurs had retired for the night, leaving me in the company of the Truckin’ Bozo, alias Dale Sommers, whose show kept many a long-haul truck driver occupied during those most forlorn of hours and taught me to let go of my moody punk rocker’s disdain for country music and embrace my dormant appreciation of Willie Nelson and John Denver. It was, in fact, John Denver, who best captured the mood of the hour in a song titled, appropriately enough, “Late Nite Radio.” I’d had an on-again, off-again love affair with the music of John Denver since I was a child in rural Kentucky. The first three albums I ever bought with my own money were the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Men at Work’s Business as Usual, and John Denver’s It’s About Time, a bizarre album that found the country-folkster grappling with the disco-synth of the 1980s.
Well I turn the dial, a little bit past one-o-one point two
In time to catch the news and see who’s shooting who.
Then I hunt around for old songs, they’re so good to hear again.
To think of how it was, imagine how it might have been.
In 1986, my growing aimless dissatisfaction with pretty much anything I could think of pushed me toward punk rock, a thing I’d seen only in bits and pieces as mysterious transmissions on the USA Channel’s Night Flight programming block, the late-night cable equivalent to late-night AM radio. I sneered at John Denver, that hokey goofball. Although punk would later reconcile itself with other styles of music, at the time, at least for me, hopped up on directionless rage and teenage hormones and a smug sense of self-righteousness, there was no peace to be brokered between punk and the other two dominant forms of music at my school: country and hair metal.
By 1992, however, a reconciliation was more realistic. I was an older, more sophisticated man of the world, nearly 20 years old and experienced in many of the more esoteric aspects of life. College had expanded my horizons, broadened my tastes, sanded some of the jagged edges off my persona. And sitting in the car, late one night, on my way to most likely nowhere in particular, I heard John Denver’s “Late Night Radio” for the first time since second or third grade. It hit me on a level difficult to express, not just because it was a narration for what I was experiencing at the precise moment it came on. It struck me how there is, in Denver’s hopeful lyrics, something oddly science fiction. He’s not singing about the stars, but he is singing about looking up at the stars. It’s a journey of sorts, one with which I empathize as someone who, to this day, will look up, see the streak of the Milky Way stretching across the sky, and feel like weeping at the joy and wonder of it all. There is an underpinning cosmic consciousness to a song like “Farewell Andromeda.” John Denver’s environmental themes — this being an era when country music still treasured the country, rather than going all-in on seeing it stripped and developed and criss-crossed with Ford F-150s engineered to belch out huge quantities of oily black soot — also lent some of his songs a scifi feel, in that enviro-scifi of the 1970s sort of way.
There’s something very science fiction about older country music in general, at least to me. So often the world’s secret places, government installation, and mystical sites are in our remotest, most rural places. Imagine Einstein rubbing elbows with the local rancher outside Los Alamos, or a soldier building Area 51 and having contend with coyotes and scorpions and rattlesnakes. Test pilots chasing the sound barrier in the deserts of the American southwest. Radio telescopes scattered across the plains south of Albuquerque. Most of the “science fiction’ we’ve transformed into reality was developed in our most remote, idyllic corners, flanked by cowboys and mountains and vast empty places. When I listen to Bob Wills, I think about the Marfa Lights. Hell, look at the cover to John Denver’s 1971 album Aerie. How is that not the cover to some “In Search of Ancient Mysteries” book?
Shortly after hearing “Late Night Radio,” I spun the dial and ended up on a channel where an elderly-sounding country man was earnestly recounting an experience he’d had in the local grocery store, which had been besieged by space aliens.
Looking for Space
My first experience with Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM came some years earlier, though at the time I didn’t know what it was. My dad and I had decided to try our hand at backpacking. We’d been car-camping many times, and my entire youth had been spent exploring the massive tracts of undeveloped, unmapped woods that surrounded us and where, as every kid knew, Bigfoot lived. It was only natural that we should be pretty good at backpacking and find the experience enjoyable. So we packed up one weekend and drove out to the Hoosier National Forest across the river in Indiana for two days of calamity that taught us valuable lessons about how heavy your pack should be and why you probably shouldn’t carry a five-gallon plastic canister of water on a hike. That night, utterly spent and with every muscle aflame from carrying more equipment with us than would be needed by even an old-time expedition to the Amazon, we collapsed in a clearing, wearily erected our heavy canvas tent, and fell asleep without taking a moment to reflect on the value of this rich father-son bonding excursion.
The decade being what it was, I had a Walkman radio with me and decided I’d relax to whatever I could find. Only I couldn’t find anything. Out there in the woods, perched somewhere on the bluffs above the Ohio River, FM was one dead channel after another, like the whole of the world had been wiped away. Knowing AM radio at the time as nothing but the awful place my dad went to for sports talk and traffic reports, I was ambivalent about flipping over to that frequency. But my dad’s snoring convinced me, and so I timidly waded into the waters of AM radio voluntarily for the first time. And there I found the most wonderful thing.
What I heard that night was a blur by the next morning, the thrill of finding it blotted out by the horror of another grim Bataan death march with our preponderance of backpacking equipment, the vast majority of which we would never use. I had the fuzziest recollection of drifting off to the sound of a man explaining remote viewing to me and the cutthroat competition between American and Soviet psychic spies. By early afternoon, with the welcome respite of the trailhead looming into view, I had forgotten that I’d stayed up late listening to a thing called Coast to Coast AM.
The Lord is still my shepherd but these preachers got to go.
This time of night my interest lies in UFOs.
So I turn the dial a little past fifty-six point three
to find myself a lullaby to rock me off to sleep.
A decade or so later, recollection of that night came flooding back. My weariness behind the wheel was banished, my attention revived the way no amount of questionable truck stop pills could ever hope to accomplish. I sat wide-eyed and rapt as this bizarre tale spilled out of the one working speaker in my car. He had been shopping, the old farmer said, at the local grocery store when he noticed a group of short, lean figures clad in black hats and overcoats zipping back and forth through the supermarket, “moving just as fast as could be.” Apparently, no one else could see these swift little beings, but the farmer could see them — and see them for what they were. As he positioned himself like a defensive lineman to apprehend one of these mysterious things, he caught a glimpse of the face beneath the brim of the cap and fold of the collar. It was a space alien, standing there just as sure as he was talking to the show’s host, a guy named Art Bell who checked in from time to time with hums, OKs, and a few incredulous sighs that even the seasoned host of America’s most beloved late-night talk show couldn’t suppress. Alas, the fleet-footed little aliens in black proved too agile for the farmer, easily skirting his defensive posture and sprinting out the door at a speed that rendered them scarcely more than a blur.
“Now, have ya ever heard of such a thing?” the farmer inquired of Art, who after collecting himself for a moment, responded that perhaps he had, and that these were visitors to our planet known as “the fastblacks.”
For another hour, I listened ravenously to tales from Art, his guests, and from callers about UFO visitations, government cover-ups, and the accomplishments of the Hyperboreans who dwelt within the Hollow Earth. Despite the gal waiting for me at the end of my drive, I was tempted to turn the car west right then and there and make a beeline for Mount Shasta in Northern California, where I was assured I would find an entrance to the Hollow Earth and all the futuristic wonders within.
Eventually, I had to pull over for a rest. In that delirious, sleep-deprived state, idling in the far corner of a parking lot, having consumed nothing but truck stop speed for the past day, and wrapped in an old Coleman sleeping bag — the very one I’d taken with me on that ill-fated backpacking trip — I slipped into a state in which I became certain, certain beyond any sense of doubt, that I was staring out of the car’s sun roof and at three dark grey triangular shapes, shadows against the pre-dawn sky, hovering directly over me. It was true, I thought. It was all true.
When I awoke, an eerie chill had fallen across the world. The windows were frosted; my breath came out in small white puffs. The car battery had been mysteriously drained of juice.
When I finally arrived in Northampton, badly in need of a shower and a bed that wasn’t the back seat of a car, I made cursory attempts to explain the epiphany I’d had on the road. But how do you explain a vision? Not a dream, as Major Briggs in Twin Peaks explains, but a vision: “as distinguished from a dream which is mere sorting and cataloguing of the day’s events by the subconscious. This was a vision, fresh and clear as a mountain stream — the mind revealing itself to itself.” She was a tolerant girl I was with, weird like me. We’d both grown up in Kentucky and come to enjoy the odder things in life. But there was a limit to what one could process when delivered by a wild-eyed, unbathed madman who comes stumbling in from the snow raving about UFOs and mind expansion technology.
In time, I settled myself down, expended the jittery energy that builds up after a long stretch of driving, had something to eat, something to drink. But my mind would wander back to the grand scheme I’d concocted, not quite awake, still not asleep. A plan I’d hatched in consultation with the UFOs hovering above a 1986 Honda Accord sitting in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart somewhere north of Richmond. Why, I asked the visitors, should I be merely a fan of science fiction? Why limit myself when my life could be science fiction? I vowed that night, to myself, to Art Bell, to the greys or the fastblacks or whoever observing me, to live a life more replete with wonder, mystery, surrealism, and absurdism. I would go, I decided, to see the great, strange places of the world. I would travel the highways where aliens prowled for hapless ranchers to abduct. I would go where mysterious lights appeared. I would walk in the footsteps of Viracocha, hitch a ride in the sky chariot of the gods. I would live for the exquisite mysteries and unconcern myself with their debatable truth. I would seek out visionaries and crackpots and true believers, even I myself was not one of them. I would dedicate my life to, immerse myself in, that twilight space where science fiction bleeds into real life.
We went out, shopped for records, my girlfriend and I. I bought a used copy of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul on vinyl in pretty good condition for a couple bucks. And I bought a used cassette. Maybe I could pry Kraftwerk out of the deck for the drive home a week later. The cassette was John Denver’s Windsong. She looked at me curiously, though not as curiously as when I tried to explain why I thought it was a good idea to buy her lingerie from South of the Border’s “Dirty Old Man” shop (pro tip: do not buy lingerie from the same place you bought a burrito).
“Hold on,” I said by way of explanation, “let me play ‘Late Night Radio’ for you.”
Late nite radio
take it everywhere I go.
My best friend when I’m lonely is my late nite radio.